Last week, Bo joined Cardinal Ignatius Suharyo of Jakarta – made a cardinal by Francis only last year – in signing a letter with other faith leaders accusing China of "potential genocide."
The cardinals wrote that, among China's many ongoing "persecutions and mass atrocities," the worst was the incarceration of the Uyghurs and their subjection to "starvation, torture, murder, sexual violence, slave labor and forced organ extraction."
If China is allowed to continue with "impunity," they said, it "calls into question most seriously the willingness of the international community to defend universal human rights."
While the comments of Cardinals Zen, Bo, and Suharyo may not be widely reported in the global press, they are closely noted in Beijing – as is Rome's refusal to reign them in.
Two Francis-appointed cardinals, leaders of the Church in South East Asia, along with one of the most prominent pro-democracy voices in Hong Kong, have become leading public critics of the Chinese government. Some close to the Vatican-China negotiations say the Chinese now suspect them to be acting as effective surrogates for Rome. Whether by accident or design, the importance of that perception could be real.
The actual terms of the 2018 deal remain unpublished, but the publicly acknowledged purpose of the accord was to create a workable system for the appointment of bishops acceptable to the Communist government and in communion with Rome. Despite this, no actual progress has been made filling vacant Chinese sees.
More than 50 dioceses in China are now without a bishop, including Hong Kong, and the immediate priority for Rome is to see those positions filled. The impression that, given a free hand, Francis would prefer bishops in the mold of Bo and Suharyo could be useful in securing a raft of less strident but still genuinely Catholic appointments.
In the past 18 months, Hong Kong has seen two names – one ardently pro-democracy and one overtly sympathetic to Beijing – considered, confirmed by Rome and then revoked before a public announcement could be made. The appointment of a Vatican-approved candidate for the most prominent Chinese diocese around the time of an extension to the Vatican-China deal next month could provide a useful barometer of how well that strategy has worked.
In the meantime, Pope Francis remains publicly on the sidelines of the most pressing international human rights crisis in the world.
The Secretariat of State has a reputation for diplomatic subtlety, and for keeping an eye on the longest of terms. At the negotiating table with China, the Church's international platform and moral authority is her biggest asset, but that capital is being spent on silence.
If they cannot show some kind of progress in the near future, they could soon find themselves counting the high moral cost of their diplomacy.
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